The Ultimate Guide To On-Page SEO For Higher Education In 2017

By January 18, 2017 No Comments


You’ve built your links, promoted your infographics, finished up an epic outreach campaign, and even landed some new contributor accounts. These are all great off-page SEO tactics that have been proven to help your website’s rankings. But for some reason, you still can’t seem to land those page 1 rankings.
What’s the issue?
Your On-Page SEO has been neglected.
On-Page SEO is regularly overlooked. Whether it be missing title tags, meta descriptions, or page headers–all of these should be taken care of first as it’s the one thing you truly have control over in SEO.
Most digital marketers are more concerned with their link-building and outreach campaigns than they are with properly optimizing their site. And rightfully so. The importance of high-quality inbound links is repeatedly pounded into our heads by every blogger out there.
But what if I told you that by tweaking a few on-page elements, you could see a significant boost in rankings? In a competitive vertical like higher education, it’s imperative that we take advantage of these easy wins. Stop ignoring your on-page SEO, implement these tactics, and you will be amazed by the results.
In this multi-part series, I will cover some important on-page elements including the most common mistakes and current best practices for higher education sites.

1. Title Tags

What Is A Title Tag?

A well-written title tag is between 60-65 characters, and it’s a crucial part of your website’s SEO as it really defines what your content is about. Typically, this is where you target your main keywords. A well-written title-tag targets several keywords while also maintaining a high click-through rate.
While the title tag is not as important as it once was, it’s still a significant piece of the puzzle. It’s the first thing that everyone sees (including Google).

How To Write A Great Title Tag


No title should be over 65 characters. Anything longer than this will be cut off in the SERPs (or Google’s search results). See example below:
how to write a great title tag
While a long title is not going to result in your website plummeting in the rankings, it does seem sloppy and can have an adverse impact on your click-through rate.

Keyword Usage

Finding creative ways to include more than just one keyword is crucial to writing a high-quality title tag. However, it’s important that you avoid keyword stuffing when creating your titles.
Keyword stuffing is when a page’s meta information (title tags, meta descriptions, alt tags, etc.) are loaded with keyword after keyword. Typically there is no other context other than a list of keywords. It’s important to avoid this as websites that use this tactic are typically banned or penalized by search engines.
Here is an example of a well-written title tag that takes advantage of several keywords:
take advantage of multiple keywords in your title tag
Character count: 62
Keywords targeted in this example:

  • Online MBA
  • Online MBA programs
  • Master of business administration
  • Master of business administration degree

Take a look at your title tags and see if there are any opportunities for you to target some related keywords.

2. Meta Descriptions

What Is A Meta Description?

The meta description is a 160 character snippet that briefly summarizes your page’s content. Users see this description when they are browsing Google results. It has a lot of value in terms of SEO as well as clickthrough rate.

How To Write The Perfect Meta Description

Similar to the title tag, we can take advantage of the meta description to target some long-tail keywords and encourage users to click on our search engine result. There is a surprising amount of people who just do not create a custom meta description. When you do this, Google attempts to auto-generate one for you by pulling content directly from your page. Unfortunately, these auto-generated descriptions do not do your content justice and may result in a user looking past your website.
Here are some things to keep in mind when writing your descriptions:

  • Be sure to keep the character count under 160. Anything else will be cut off and decrease the readability.
  • Include some long-tail keywords but be sure to avoid keyword stuffing. Find creative ways to add keywords into sentences so that it sounds natural.
  • Include call-to-actions in your descriptions. Adding phrases like “read more here” and “find out how…” will do wonders for your click-through rate.

3. Header Tags

Do not ignore header tags. Making proper use of headers is essential to good on-page SEO.

What are header tags?

Good question. Simply put, they are HTML tags (<h1>, <h2>, <h3>, etc.) that organize the content on your page for users and search engines alike. Using headers drastically improves the readability of your content. Improving the readability will result in better on-page metrics, such as time on page and bounce rate. Both are positive signals that Google takes into consideration.

How To Properly Use Headers

While this may seem pretty self-explanatory, you would be shocked to see how many higher education websites are making crucial mistakes. Here are some quick tips on using header tags:

Use Only One <h1> Tag

Only use 1 <h1> tag. This tag should typically be the title of your post and should contain your main target keyword. Again, it’s important that there are only 1 of these tags per page. Having multiple H1 tags can make it difficult for Google to crawl your page effectively.
This rule does not apply to the subheaders. As long as it makes sense, you can use as many h2, h3, and h4’s as you want.

Include Target Keywords

Each of your header tags should include your target keywords. This does not mean your header tag should just be a keyword and nothing else. Make sure it’s natural and effectively defines the section. (Keep in mind that if you are working with a site that runs WordPress, the title of your post/page will automatically be assigned an h1 tag.) Here is an excellent example of a well-written <h1> tag that targets multiple keywords:
how to write the best h1 tag for seo
You should consider using LSI keywords in your headers. LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) keywords are semantically related to your target keywords. For example, if your target keyword is “online MBA,” a good LSI keyword would be “master of business admin program online.”
Google is advanced enough to understand that these different phrases are referring to the same thing. It is an excellent way to avoid keyword stuffing as well as making your content flow more naturally.

Directly Answer Common Queries

When doing keyword research for your piece of content, you will most likely run into common questions people ask Google. Include these queries directly in your header tags. Furthermore, answer these questions in a very straightforward format. Lists and tables work great here. We want to make it as easy as possible for Google to crawl and understand we are providing a clear answer to people’s question.
Do this correctly and Google will reward you with a boost in rankings and traffic. See below:

4. Alt Tags

Do you put a lot of effort into writing alt tags? Do you even include alt tags on your photos? If you answered no to either of those questions, you are making a huge mistake.
Alt tags are important in Google’s eyes. So they should be important to you.

Why Are Alt Tags Important?

Think about it this way–how else will Google be able to understand what an image on your site is about if there is not metadata to go along with it? Once Google knows what your image is, you may even get some traffic from Google Images. It’s a win-win.
Alt tags are another piece of the on-page puzzle, and by not including them, your SEO is incomplete.
I recently ran a test of my own and simply added/updated all of the alt tags on a single page. I did not change any other elements on the page. Within 48 hours I noticed a significant boost in rankings. Try it yourself if you don’t believe me!
increase search engine rankings by adjusting alt tags

How To Write A Solid Alt Tag

A common mistake that most people make when adding alt tags to their images is they simply include a target keyword. While this is better than nothing, we can do much better and improve our on-page.
Be as descriptive as possible. For example, your main image on a page targeting “online MBA” should have an alt tag that looks something like this:
“XYZ University offers the best online MBA in the world”
The same thing applies to the title of the image. Make this just as descriptive as the alt tag and considering adding some LSI keywords in there. The code for your image should now look like this:
<img src=”” alt=”XYZ University offers the best online MBA in the world” title=”Find out more about the XYZ master in business administration program” />
Apply these tactics to your site’s images and watch your rankings soar.

5. Keyword Density

As I’ve mentioned throughout this post, we want to avoid keyword stuffing at all costs. Google’s Panda updates have cracked down on sites with thin content and those who blatantly overuse keywords without adding any real value.
Keyword density gives us an insight into whether or not we are overusing our target keywords on any given page. It is a percentage that is calculated by dividing the number of keyword uses by the total number of words on the page.
Typically, you want to keep your keyword density for your target keyword around 1%. This is definitely on the safer side. So if you have 1000 words on your page, you can safely use your keyword about ten times.
In the example below, you will see that “online MBA” is only at 0.32% density. This means the page could easily include a few more instances of the target keyword.
best keyword density to use in your SEO content
This does not mean you can’t target LSI keywords and other long tail keywords. The keyword density only applies to exact matches.
If you find that your page is having trouble moving up in the rankings, then check your keyword density and see if you are using your keyword too many times. You can use a Chrome plugin like SEOQuake to check your density quickly.

6. Internal Linking

Internal linking is up there as one of the most important on-page SEO elements. Internal linking is essentially the act of linking to other pages on your site from any given article. If you ever find yourself questioning the power of internal linking, take a look at any Wikipedia article, and you will see how often they implement this tactic. And not many people do SEO better than Wikipedia. Look at the opening paragraph of one of their articles:
why internal linking is important in higher education

Why Internal Linking Is Important

Spreads Link Juice

Interlinking your site is important for a number of reasons, because it’s a way of spreading the “link juice” throughout your website. In short, “link juice” can be defined as the power that individual links provide your site. So if the majority of links pointing to your site are going to your home page, then linking to other pages on your site from your home page is a good way of dispersing that link juice throughout the rest of your site. The more link juice the internal pages of your site have, the higher your rankings will be.

Increases User Experience

Internal linking is important because it helps with user experience and overall usability. For example, if people are reading a blog post on your website about the benefits of an online MBA, linking to the online MBA degree page would be very beneficial. Linking to other helpful resources on your site is always going to add value to the visitor.

Lowers Bounce Rate

To go along with usability, when users are visiting other pages on your site, it’s lowering your site’s bounce rate. As mentioned before, having a low bounce rate sends a positive signal to Google, essentially telling them that you have a very resourceful site.

Best Practices For Interlinking

Number of Links

Many people wonder if there is a limit to how many internal links you can include on a page. There is no limit. As long as the page you are linking to is relevant to the current page, then you should link to it.

Relevance Of The Link

On the other hand, you do want to avoid linking to unrelated pages. For instance, if your article is about nursing degrees, it probably wouldn’t make too much sense to link to an article about social work degrees. The idea here is to make sure your article is as natural as possible. We want to make sure Google doesn’t think you are trying to “game” their algorithm.

Anchor Text

You want to link out to your pages using your target keywords. This may seem pretty obvious, but it’s very important. For example, if you’re trying to get your MBA page to rank for the term “online MBA,” then you will want to link to that page using that keyword as the anchor text. Be careful not to overdo this, however. It’s a good idea to use a few other LSI keywords when linking to this page. Remember, keep things looking natural.

7. External Linking

While not nearly as important as internal linking, external linking can help give your site the extra boost that it needs. External linking means linking out to relevant websites within your article or pages. For example, with our higher education clients, Circa Interactive recommend they link externally to published studies.

Why Should We Link To Other Sites?

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to link to other sites since the goal is to keep visitors on your pages. However, by linking to high authority sites, you’re showing Google that your site is a solid resource page. You want to give off the impression that your site is a hub of information.
In the same sense that internal linking is good for user experience, it’s also a good idea to build external links to valuable resources for your visitors. If there is a resource somewhere online that can provide supplemental information on your page’s topic, then this would be very helpful to the user. Even though they are leaving your site, chances are they will remember your school being very helpful, giving them a reason to return as a visitor.
For example, using our Online MBA example again, if your page makes mention of scholarships being available for this program, then linking out to a list of relevant scholarships would be a very good idea.

Best Practices For Linking Externally

When it comes to linking externally in higher education, we want to make sure we’re linking to reputable sources. If you happen to have Moz bar installed, one rule of thumb is to make sure you are only linking out to websites that have a domain authority of 65+. While this is not a perfect way to filter sites, it’s a fairly accurate representation of how much we can trust a site.
Here are a few examples of pages we can comfortably link to:

  • Other .edu domains
  • Any .gov domains
  • Published studies
  • Scholarship pages
  • Websites with domain authority of 65+

8. Length of Content

When I first started out in SEO, digital marketers could throw up 300 words of content and expect the page to rank for its target keywords, but due to new algorithm updates, these days are long gone, especially for the more competitive terms. The length of your content now plays an important role in how a given page ranks in Google.

Benefits Of Longer Content

Better rankings

Well, that’s the obvious answer at least. But it’s true. If you take the time to look at the pages that are ranking for your target keyword, then chances are the ones with the most content are in the top spots. Obviously, this is not the sole factor in what is making these pages rank, but it’s a common denominator. Let’s take a look at the site ranking number 1 for “online MBA.”
content length for higher education seo
As you can see, they nearly have 4,000 words of content. How does your website stack up against that?
This does not mean that you should go add an additional 1000 words of useless fluff to your pages. Google is smarter than that, and you could end up getting slapped with a “thin content” penalty. The goal is to make sure our content is adding ACTUAL value to our visitors. Which brings us to the next benefit…

Adds Value

Having tons of useful information on a page adds value in both the eyes of Google and for the visitor. As mentioned before, the goal is to have your site become a hub of information. Take a look at Wikipedia again as an example to see how long their articles are on any given topic. I can save you some time by telling you: They are very long and full of useful information.

Target More Longtail Keywords

This might be the most important benefit of adding more content to your pages. The longer your content, the more chances you have to rank for long tail keywords. While these long tail keywords don’t have much search volume behind them, it does add up. Think about it this way; you can easily rank for five keywords that each have 100 searches/mo. Simple addition tells us that you are essentially ranking for a keyword with 500 searches/mo.

What Is The Standard In 2017?

Now, you’re probably wondering, “How long should my content be?” A good rule of thumb here is to look at how much content your competitors have. If all of the top results for your target keywords have pages with 2000 words, then you should consider at least matching that. It’s imperative that you do not write content just to get the word count up. If you don’t have actual valuable content to add, then don’t do it. With that being said, there are always ways to get creative and up that word count.

9. Schema Markup For Higher Education

Schema is undoubtedly the most underused method of search engine optimization today. This is partly due to the fact that it’s fairly new and partly because most people don’t understand what exactly it is. So what is it?
Schema is code that is placed on your website which helps Google better understand what exactly your content is about. Think about it as presenting your content to Google on a golden platter. This allows them to display your content in a more informative way in the search engine results. For example, take a look at the search results for “online MBA.” You will see some links going directly to different pages of the site.
using schema markup for colleges and universities
Another way of looking at schema is that it allows the search engines to understand what your content means and not just what it says. The better Google understand what your content is about, the more they will reward you with rankings.

How To Use Schema In Higher Education

Now that you have an idea of what schema markup is let’s look at how we can apply it to higher education marketing. First, take a look at the documentation here.
You will see a ton of options of marking up information regarding your college or university. For example, you can markup the address of the university, notable alumni, any awards that may have been won. If you click on any of the properties on this page, it will go into detail on how to implement them on your website. The process is pretty intuitive, however, does require some basic knowledge of HTML.
It was recently announced that will be including markup for college courses. This is fantastic news for those interested in higher education. The property is still pending, but you can periodically check here to see if it’s been released.

10. Site Speed

Here is another commonly overlooked on-page factor in the higher education world. If you don’t think the speed of your site matters, then you are about ten steps behind your competition. Not only is site speed incredibly important for your website’s visitors, but it’s just as important in the eyes of Google as well.

Importance Of Website Speed

Let’s say you’ve finally got your university’s site to rank for your target keywords, and prospective students are arriving at your landing page, but it’s taking forever to load. How long do you think before they become frustrated and go to a competitor’s site? With so many other options out there, I can tell you it won’t take long.
Think about the times you’ve been browsing the web and came across a site that took a while to load. You probably click the back button and went to the next search engine result. Having a slow site has a huge effect on bounce rate, which sends a negative signal to Google. If you still aren’t convinced that site speed plays a part in search engine rankings, here is a detailed study from Moz that should make you a believer.

Some Quick Fixes

Get Better Hosting

One of the most common causes of a slow site is a slow host. If you’re paying next to nothing for some shared hosting, chances are it’s having a large effect on your response time. You should consider hosting your website on a dedicated server. While this will be a bit pricier, it will do wonders for your site’s speed.

Compress Large Images

It’s a common issue to have too many large images on a site, which impacts site speed. I recommend compressing images before uploading them. It’s extremely easy, especially with online tools such as

Minify Your HTML/CSS/JS

This can be a bit technical, but it’s a great way to quickly reduce the load time of your website. If you happen to be running WordPress, there are great plugins that will do this for you automatically, such as W3 Total Cache. If you’re not running WordPress, then I recommend reaching out to a developer to help you accomplish this.

Use A Content Delivery Network

Content Delivery Network’s or CDN’s are great to use for both site speed and security. A CDN is essentially a network of servers around the globe that delivers your webpages to users based on their geographic location. These are fairly easy to setup. Cloudflare is a great one to start with (and free).
To get an idea of where your website stands regarding site speed, you can use this tool from Pingdom. Here is what a well-optimized site looks like:
great site speed for colleges and university websites
If you want to learn more about site speed optimization, then there are tons of resources around the web. Here is an excellent guide to get started.

Wrapping Things Up

I encourage anyone reading this post to implement these tactics on their higher education site. Most of these are quick fixes you can apply today. Doing so will give you a significant advantage over your competition as most people fail to optimize their sites properly.
Be sure to join our mailing list as this all-inclusive guide will continue to be updated. Google is updating their algorithm regularly, so it’s important you stay on top of the game. Thanks for reading and be sure to drop and questions or comments below!

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